Multiple Paths to the Same Place

Jul 02, 2015


Providing and explaining two different ways of getting from one place to another place might seem helpful but can also be confusing and counterproductive.


These photographs all show the same thing – the area that greets travellers as they get off an airport shuttle train. Everybody disembarks from that train and is faced with that sign. All travellers have to do the same thing – go up one floor. They can do that using the elevators, or either of the two escalators located (but not shown in the photographs) at opposite ends of the platform. The design is completely symmetrical, and all options go from the same place (the platform) to the same place (up one level to the terminal).




The sign makes it confusing, and you can see it as people step off on to the platform. People new to the airport read the sign and, if they are english speakers, they almost certainly read it from left to right. That means they first recognize that the elevator on the left will take them where they need to go and they start heading that way – even if they entered the platform on the far left side.

Meanwhile people that are familiar with the airport know all roads lead to the same place, and just head for whichever escalator is closer. Also some of the newcomers continue to read the sign and, realizing that there is no difference, turn and head to the right escalator to avoid the bigger crowd that is forming up on the left. As a result there is a certain amount of chaos as people bump and cross paths for no good reason.

The sign is confusing to the newcomer. You probably naturally read the left side first. You might then continue on and read the right side, and realize that it is the same.

But that doesn't feel right! Why would they have two signs explaining two different ways to get to the same place? You stop and study the signs... it seems like all roads lead to the same place, but it doesn't feel right. Something like this might have been better:


<<     Baggage Claim, Ticketing/Check-In
Ground Transportation


That does a better job of establishing that there is only one destination with all roads leading to it. There is no temptation to compare the destinations shown on the right and left sides shown in the photograph because there is no left or right. Clearly there is only place to go, albeit with different paths leading to it.

In user interface (an important part of software development) experts often suggest that it's wrong to give users more than one way to do the same thing. For a software developer it's very tempting... a house with multiple doorways seems better than a house with just one, so why not provide multiple options in your software? Why not provide three ways to get to the same report and then another four ways to get the same result (print, export, etc.)? That way the people that use the software can choose whichever one they like and use it.

Interface experts say it creates confusion for the software user. First, by giving the user multiple options you are forcing them to make a choice. When they want to run that report they don't just have to do it, they have to spend an extra second thinking about which method they want to use. Since the end result is exactly the same, that decision is wasted effort.

There can also be uncertainty about whether each option does in fact give them the same result. As a software developer I have seen first hand that users can come to believe that different options can generate different results (when they definitely do not) further complicating the decision.

In the case of the terminal platform two roads leading to the same place are presumably essential because of volume – they need more channels to move people. But there is a better way to communicate that they all go to the same place.

Experts also say that it is good to reward power users in software development. For example the Command-P option to print is preferred by power users, while other people prefer to navigate File > Print to get the exact same result. The software developer should provide both of these options.

It's also considered good practice to give users the option of using either the keyboard or mouse. The two print options described above illustrate this perfectly – power users will find it easier to use the keyboard shortcut while everyone else can use the mouse. Again the software developer should provide both of these options.



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